Time: 7:30 pm Eastern Time
Location: Nationwide Arena
Opponent SBNation Site: Jackets Cannon
The Lightning start a quick two-game Metropolitan Division road trip tonight in Columbus against the Blue Jackets. They’ll follow tonight’s game with another in Philadelphia against the Flyers on Tuesday.
The Bolts have won seven of their last ten games and gotten points in nine of those. The Jackets have split their last ten, winning five and losing five. Both teams currently sit in playoff positions but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Tampa leads the Eastern Conference by 16 points. The Jackets are in the wild-card scrum currently tied with Montreal and Pittsburgh, but with two games in hand on both.
For Columbus, this is the worst-case scenario. They’re a fringe playoff team. They have two of their best players headed for unrestricted free agency and unlikely to re-sign. The front office has one week to decide whether to go for it this season or pull the plug and trade Artemi Panarin and/or Sergei Bobrovsky. Panarin is their best forward. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the NHL over the last few years but has not reached those heights this season.
To trade either could mean the difference between making the playoffs or not. To trade both would almost certainly end their chances at being a contender this season. They might still limp into the playoffs without them but they wouldn’t be a threat to anyone.
The Lightning enter this game on a five-game winning streak. Andrei Vasilevskiy has posted shutouts in back-to-back games and will look for his third in a row tonight. Nikita Kucherov has been the best player in the world recently and now has 94 points on the season and remains the NHL scoring leader by a comfortable margin.
With Erik Cernak’s return to the lineup on Saturday, the Bolts are now fully healthy. That means the defensive rotation continues. As of morning skate, it looks like Anton Stralman will get his turn for a day of rest.
The Jackets have been an average team this season in terms of expected goals and that aligns with their middle-of-the-pack placement in the standings. But lately, they’ve been bad. And it hasn’t been limited to one end of the ice. They’ve had problems both defensively and offensively.
The Lightning have also struggled at 5v5 offensively but they’ve compensated for that with excellent defensive play. They’ve relied heavily on the power play to score goals. But the Jackets penalty kill has been one of their strengths recently so that avenue to scoring might be blocked tonight.
For the Lightning, the challenge is to stay motivated through the slog of February and March while they have this comfortable lead in the standings. For the Jackets, every game impacts no only their potential playoff positioning, but which players might still be on the roster past next Monday’s trade deadline.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Yanni Gourde - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat - Steven Stamkos - Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - J.T. Miller
Adam Erne - Cedric Paquette - Mathieu Joseph
Scratched - Ryan Callahan, Danick Martel
Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev
Scratched - Anton Stralman
Columbus Blue Jackets
Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson
Anthony Duclair - Nick Foligno - Josh Anderson
Eric Robinson - Alexander Wennberg - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Kole Sherwood - Riley Nash - Lukas Sedlak
Ryan Murray - Seth Jones
Zach Werenski - David Savard
Hott Scarrington - Markus Nutivaara